Thursday, June 10, 2010

Black Pop Icons Where Are They Now?

As a child of the ’70s, I look at what my children have today in the way of cultural programming and Dancing with the Stars and American Idol are about as close as it gets. In the ’70s and the ’80s we had pop culture favorites for music and dance lovers like Soul Train, Solid Gold, The Gong Show, Music Video Connection, New York Hot Tracks, and for D.C. Metro area viewers, Soul of the City, a dance show, that, back then we just called the “Moon Man” show.

As kids watching the Moon Man on a UHF station, Channel 20 in Washington, DC., we would make fun of his neck, (or lack thereof—the complete opposite of Herschel Walker) the cheesy quality of the dance show with its futuristic studio set (hence the Moon Man), and the C-quality level of the dancers (some of which we knew because they were locals). Still, we hardly ever missed a show and tried to mimic some of the dance moves. I don’t want to expound on Solid Gold because it still conjures, for me, images of gold lame cat-suits and that’s painful.

On Soul Train we would always wait for the Asian lady with the long hair down to her knees to come down the Soul Train line. We hated really hard on her, mostly because of the exceptionally hard hair swinging (even those of us with long hair were discouraged from shaking it. That and wrapping it around your ear were just not cool. Very Farrah Fawcett-ish-R.I.P. It could earn you a beat down). The hair swing became her signature move and earned her the moniker of the “long-haired Asian chick.” Of course no one wears their hair that long now, and the shelves of beauty supply stores tell us why. For those that could see past the hair shaking to notice her petite soulful dancing understood that she was a trailblazer for multi-ethnic soul. In looking back I had to ask myself, could I have done those moves week after week in high heels? Stood there and watched as guests struggled with easy answers to the Soul Train scramble board? Figured out what dance moves I could maneuver to a slow jam as I wriggled my body and brushed my fingers held in two peace signs over my eyes? Waited for Don Cornelius to come up with a creative pick up line for a female artist as he undressed them with his eyes? The obvious answer came to me as I practiced some hair swinging and dance moves in front of the mirror recently: not so much.

So in lamenting my lost childhood I wondered where some of these cultural icons were today.

Remember…the long-haired Asian woman on Soul Train?

Well she has a name and its Cheryl Song and I found her to be, in looking back with a more open-minded, bad knee having maturity, a talented dancer—at least by ’70s and ’80s standards. You could easily imagine her dancing in a cage at a club like the Tunnel in New York, or at a rites of passage ceremony. Easily. And so I’m publicly apologizing for all the jokes we made about the hair shaking. Frenzied hair shaking does not diminish your dancing potential and in Cheryl’s case, it enhanced her brand and made her a courageous legend in the fans of Soul Train. Her family, who lived in Crenshaw, seems to have had a profound respect for African American culture and music. Her brother, Aaron Song, played harmonica and guitar in his own Chinese Blues All-Star Band—a band he played in when he managed his blues and R&B-themed high-end Chinese restaurant in Torrance, California.

Here’s a Soul Train tribute…

She went on to “star” in music videos like the late great MJ’s Beat It (she’s on at :07). She’s..well, the long-haired Asian lady that gets her hair pulled…

And Rick James’ Super Freak: (she’s at 0:26)

So..Where is she now?

Well I found her working her tail off at LAX airport as the executive assistant to the Federal Security director. She hung up her dancing shoes in 1995, but she’s still petite in her mid 50s and apparently has never cut her hair in her entire life span because it still falls below her waist. Here, she answers a few questions about her glory days:

Q. How did you come to be in Beat It?

A. Through Soul Train. Soul Train opened a lot of doors for me. Somebody invited me to go to watch Michael. Someone called the office of Soul Train and they referred him to me and they wanted to get Michael some people to teach him the Moonwalk. I spoke with Michael and I met with him and hooked him up with some of the male dancers that could do the moonwalk.

Q. Was that Jeffrey Daniel? Is that true that he taught him to moonwalk?

A. Yes, some other dancers too, but Jeffrey was the most famous. I talked with Michael on the phone and I talked with him when we met. He was eager to get someone to show him and he stressed that it HAD TO BE THE BEST!

Q. What was Michael like?

A. He was the sweetest person you could ever want to meet. When we did Beat It there were a lot of real gang members. A lot of the background ones, they were real gang members. I don’t know how they got them, but they were scary looking. And Michael went over, cause we were in one room all together, and Michael came over and shook everyone’s hand. The dancers weren’t gang members, but a lot of people in the background were and the people coming up out of the manhole were real gang members. We filmed in downtown Los Angeles, like 2 or 3 in the morning. Most of it took place in this dilapidated building.

Q. How did you learn how to dance?

A. I always liked to dance. I went to a black high school. I went to Dorsey in Los Angeles, and I always hung around with the dancers.

Q. How did you get on Soul Train?

A. A lot of people from my high school, Jody Watley, Jeffrey Daniel, were on Soul Train and they kind of brought me on as a dare. It was like, ‘Hmm, let’s bring her, let’s see what they say when we show her!’

Q. Were there any Asians on Soul Train before you?

A. No, I broke down the door. It was kind of scary at first and I knew a lot of people liked me and a lot of people didn’t like me. They felt like I shouldn’t be on this show. I had to prove myself.

Q. How did you get to the point where people respected you as a dancer?

A. Probably after a season. When I came back they were much more receptive. I did it for about ten years. We filmed one weekend per month. Filmed two shows on Saturday and two shows on Sunday.

Q. Was any of it choreographed?

A. You could pretty much dance however you wanted, but they placed everybody.

Q.What are some of your best memories of being on the show?

A. That’s where I met Michael.

Q.When he came to perform?

A. Right when he left the Jacksons. I was so nervous, it’s like you can’t even open your mouth. He was at a table and I was sitting there, and they introduced me to him. He asked for some Yogi tea from one of the health food restaurants from his people and then he talked to me about what he wanted in terms of dances. When I talked to him on the phone I was like frozen. I hung up the phone and said, “Did I just talk to Michael Jackson?” Out of everyone, I idolized him the most.

Q. What did you do after the Beat It video?

A. I did Super Freak with Rick James. He was like the comedian at school, always making everyone laugh. He was really down to earth. He would crack a joke about you and make everyone laugh.

Q. And then you choreographed for Lionel Richie?

A. Yeah, he was on Saturday Night Live doing a solo. A lot of the songs were slow, so I just gave him steps and directions and how to move, so it wasn’t like a really hard thing to do. But when you’re on stage and you’re not a real dancer, you’re like, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ It was pretty informal.

Q. When did you hang up your dancing shoes?

A. About 1995. I danced in Japan. I stayed there for like a month or two, then we went to Texas, Florida, New York on tour with the Soul Train dancers. We did choreographed numbers.

Q. Do people still recognize you? Do you still have the long hair?

A.YES! And it surprises me cause that was such a long time ago.

So, in thinking about Soul Train, it not only provided us with jokes for days, it also served as a launching pad for many musicians and dancers, including, but not limited to Rosie Perez, Damita Jo, Darnell Williams (Jesse from All My Children), Vivica Fox, Lela Rochon, Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel, Fred Berry and the Lockers. And we’re gonna find them all!

Originally published on

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